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Australia's Asia literacy wipe-out

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This post is part of the Asian languages in Australia debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

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4 November 2011 09:33


This post is part of the Asian languages in Australia debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

Tim Lindsey is an ARC Federation Fellow and Director of the Asian Law Centre at the University of Melbourne.

It's been coming for years, but it looks Australia's Asia literacy wipe-out may now have arrived.

In October, The Sydney Morning Herald reported that NSW has just reported its lowest proportion ever of students enrolled in a second language – 9% of 72,391 HSC students. Of these, French was most popular, with 1471. Japanese had 1376 and Chinese 1091. Indonesian had just 232 and Hindi a mere 42.

These depressing stats reflect the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations' own assessment last year that Korean was all but gone from our education system, Indonesian was likely to be gone in eight years, and Japanese is falling fast. Chinese is growing, but overwhelmingly it is taught to ethnic Chinese. There are a few universities where Asian language enrollments are picking up a little, but most of the new students are Asians, and it remains to be seen if this a trend or a blip.

Non-language Asian studies are in an even worse state. Efforts that began in the 1970s to mainstream Asia in schools and universities have largely failed. Outside marginal 'flags and food' events, most kids are never really exposed to the region that gives the 'Asia Century' its name.

It is surely a no-brainer that Asia literacy is essential for trade and security as power and wealth move from the US and Europe to our near north. Yet fewer kids now study Indonesian (to give one example) than in the 1970s, when the White Australia policy was in place – and that's in absolute numbers, not percentages.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Australians want returns from Asia without putting effort into it. 

As I have written repeatedly, we see Asia as a market, not an investment (and that is true of many of our universities too, who expect to survive on Asian student fees without investing in Asia expertise among their staff: so much for 'globalism'!). Any business person will tell you that if you don't invest in your market you will end up without one. That is the risk Australia faces.

The usual solution is to rely on Asians who speak English, often expressed in the embarrassing neo-colonial trope, 'aren't they all learning English anyway?' (once heard from a current minister, sad to say). Yes, many Asians are learning English, but most are not.

In any case, the fact that our polylingual and culturally nimble competitors speak our language and we cannot speak theirs is surely no consolation at all. How will we manage the sensitive (and highly competitive) political, strategic, commercial, inter-religious and inter-cultural negotiations with our Asian neighbours that will determine success in the turbulent century ahead if we operate from ignorance?

Sadly, the bad news from NSW is part of a stream of similar stats that suggest these arguments have been lost. It seems clear that the market has failed to provide Australia with the Asia skills it needs.

This means that, like it or not, rebuilding Asia literacy must depend on market intervention – in other words, major federal government investment in schools, universities and the community. To revive dying Asia literacy, a wide range of strategies are needed, from bribes like matriculation, HECS and EFTSU bonuses and so on, to long-term support to retrain teachers who have been forced out of Asia teaching, among many others. 

And that support must be consistent over at least two decades if rebuilding is to have chance. NALSAS got eight years before it was chopped by the Coalition government. Rudd's (much smaller) NALSPP got just four years before Labor declined to renew it. This unpredictability has left many school principals reluctant to invest in Asia again.

And of course all this ignores the other argument: Asia literacy is not just about our trade and security. We, alone of all Western countries, are located in one of the most exciting and stimulating parts of the world, with fabulously rich artistic traditions and cutting-edge modern cultures. Asia is funky! It is a place to love and be stimulated by, not to loathe and fear. It is deeply sad that we are missing out on this, and strangling ourselves with parochialism. It impoverishes us – and it is probably the main reason for the lack of popular in interest in Asia literacy.

Doing something about this is, however, even harder than fixing education, as it means shifting rusted-on Australian attitudes and more than just a hint of some nasty old racist ideas, all too often strengthened by entrenched media habits of presenting Asia as a horror story. The solution to cultural engagement therefore probably lies with the next generation, and that, again, means a long-haul investment in education. 

But don't hold your breath, and don't be deceived by rhetoric. There is no sign in Canberra of any serious interest in major funding for Asia literacy. Will Ken Henry change that when he produces his report next year? You better hope so...

Photo by Flickr user Renato Ganoza.

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